Neo-Nazi and recently convicted terrorist Ben John was ordered to read classic literature, including the novels of Jane Austen, as punishment, despite prosecutors pushing for a harsher sentence.
John, 22, downloaded nearly 68,000 files of white supremacist media as well as bomb-making instructions.
But a British royal court in Leicester slapped him with more reading homework in August last year, sentencing the burgeoning right-wing radical to a lesson in the language arts rather than incarceration.
Judge Timothy Spencer ordered John to read several literary classics, including Austen’s “Price and Prejudice,” William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” and Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities.”
While naysayers called the court’s disciplinary curriculum “unduly lenient,” John told the court he preferred Shakespeare over Austen — and his reading ultimately did nothing to stop him from perusing radical materials.
During a review hearing on Jan. 6, the judge asked John for a report on his reading list. “I enjoyed Shakespeare more than I did Jane Austen,” John said, “but I still enjoyed Jane Austen by a degree.”
But UK solicitor general Alex Chalk was dubious. “We now know that within a week of giving an apparently sincere promise to the judge, he resumed his interest in the far right,” Chalk told the court.
“He began liking Nazi posts online and other extremist activity five days after promising the judge he had put it behind him,” he added. “Some of the material accessed as recently as this month is very troubling.”
Chalk urged the court to consider “whether the judge was right to take such an indulgent and trusting approach.”
At the time of sentencing, Spencer had said that John avoided prison “by the skin of his teeth” — as well as six other counts of terrorism by claiming ignorance.
Rather, Spencer asked John to “promise” to end his interest in far-right ideologies and seek alternative reading — calling the defendant a “sad fantasist” with “mere academic fascination,” and thus not a truly violent criminal.
“Have you read Dickens? Austen? Start with ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and Dickens’ ‘A Tale of Two Cities. ‘Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night.’ Think about Hardy. Think about Trollope,” the judge said.
However, the UK’s attorney general’s office has requested the court review the “unduly lenient” sentence, after anti-fascist group Hope Not Hate called for the Court of Appeal to take up the case in an open letter: “This sentence is sending a message that violent right-wing extremists may be treated leniently by the courts.”
A spokesperson from the Campaign Against Antisemitism said in a statement, “The Attorney General was absolutely right.”
“It is inexplicable that a man who collected nearly 70,000 neo-Nazi and terror-related documents could entirely avoid a custodial sentence for crimes that carry a maximum jail term of fifteen years,” they continued.
“Instead, Ben John left court with a mere suspended sentence and some English homework.”
The group also noted the detail that “Crime and Punishment” was not among the suggested reading. “Perhaps the judge himself ought to review that classic as he reflects on the risk that his dangerous sentence poses to the public.”
John, from Lincoln, was studying criminology and psychology in January 2020 at a university in Leicester when authorities discovered his hard drive packed with 67,788 pages of hate-based propaganda from neo-Nazi terrorist groups such as National Action and Atomwaffen Division, and extremist occult sect the Order of Nine Angles, plus the well-known Anarchist Cookbook. He was later charged by a jury under Britain’s Terrorism Act.
He is scheduled to return for another court review in six months.
Meanwhile, Judge Spencer has concluded that John’s progress so far has been positive.
“It is clear that you have tried to sort your life out,” he said. “I am encouraged about what you have written out for me and I am encouraged by your efforts to seek employment and I wish you well with that.”